No. 5 Tennessee put the disappointment of its first loss behind it in emphatic fashion as the Volunteers cruised to a 66-24 win over Missouri at Neyland Stadium. The SEC East showdown carried major postseason implications for both teams, and while the Tigers pushed Tennessee at times in the game, they ultimately had no answer for the Vols’ explosive offense.
Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker reignited his Heisman Trophy hopes with over 400 yards of total offense and four touchdowns as the Volunteers racked up a program-record 724 yards and set a school record for most points scored in an SEC game. When Missouri drew within 28-24 early in the third quarter, the Volunteers ticked off three straight touchdowns drives of 67 yards or longer to retake control of the game. Ultimately, they scored the game’s final 38 points and didn’t slow down even when backup quarterback Joe Milton entered late.
After finishing with just 289 total yards in a 27-13 loss at Georgia last week, Tennessee accumulated 365 yards in the first half alone. While Missouri quarterback Brady Cook gave the Volunteers defense fits with his scrambling ability at times, Tennessee came up with seven three-and-outs in the game as a sellout crowd offered support on the program’s Senior Day.
With the win, Tennessee finishes the home portion of its schedule unbeaten for the first time since 2007 as the Volunteers hit the road for games against South Carolina and Vanderbilt to close the regular season. At 9-1, Tennessee has now matched its best season win total since that ’07 season with at least three games still remaining.
College Football Playoff implications
With Georgia set to clinch the SEC East with a win in either of its next two games, Tennessee will likely need to earn a College Football Playoff berth as a one-loss squad that did not play in its conference championship game. That has only happened twice before in the eight years of the CFP’s existence. But Saturday marked a start toward redemption for Tennessee after the disappointing showing against the Bulldogs knocked the Vols from the No. 1 spot.
The Volunteers could not afford another slip up, and they probably need some style points to help their case. That might explain why second-year coach Josh Heupel kept airing it out with the game out of reach and Milton in the game. Things got chippy when Tennessee scored its final touchdown with just 36 seconds on the clock, but if the goal was to make a statement with a dominant victory, then the extra pair of touchdowns in the final minutes helped accomplish that goal.
The Heisman Trophy race is still wide open, but Hooker needed a big game to revitalize his hopes after Georgia’s defense stymied Tennessee’s offense last week. The redshirt senior delivered through the air and on the ground to keep his name firmly in the race. He finished 25-of-35 passing for 355 yards with three touchdowns while also running for 54 yards and a score.
Hooker has now thrown for 24 touchdowns and just two interceptions with another five scores on the ground. The Virginia Tech transfer positioned himself to surpass 3,000 yards passing for the season next week against South Carolina.
Running back depth
While Tennessee’s aerial attack was on display with Bru McCoy and Jalin Hyatt each surpassing 100 yards receiving, its rushing game was on point against Missouri as well. Hooker, Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson each rattled off runs of 19 yards or more as the Vols averaged 7.1 yards per rush attempt. Sampson’s performance was particularly noteworthy as the true freshman ran eight times for 98 yards and a score.
The workload marked his largest in a conference game this season, and the former three-star prospect made a compelling case to be a larger part of the running back rotation moving forward. With Tennessee leading just 35-24 in the third quarter, Sampson rattled off runs of 42 yards and 15 yards on consecutive plays to set up a 2-yard touchdown strike from Hooker to Princeton Fant.